Haakon's mission takes him to Scarborough in 1066
Approximately 2400 words.
It seems that there is a Chronology Protection Agency which prevents the appearance of closed timelike curves and so makes the universe safe for historians. 1
-- Stephen Hawking
11 September 1066
Scarborough, Earldom of Northumbria
Kingdom of England
Haakon's Timepiece keened, and the temporal field that enclosed him swirled in a wild kaleidoscope of color. The sonics rose in pitch, and the colors deepened. Even though he'd done this hundreds of times, jump jeebies still roiled his stomach and sent pinpricks skittering across his flesh. Just beyond the edge of his space-time bubble, the forest surrounding the village of Scarborough shimmered into existence. With a final pulse of light and sound, the field dissolved, leaving him standing alone in the moonlit weald. Ozone burned his nostrils before giving way to the fresh scent of the nearby sea. He had to admit, there was a purity to this era that always energized him. It almost made up for the brutality. Almost.
Bat wings fluttered, and a breeze rustled through the trees behind him. Adrenalin tingled out his fingertips. He whirled and peered into the darkness. Nothing but shadows. His lips turned down. Stupid. No one should be out and about an hour before dawn. Still, it was best to be cautious, especially with the stochastic simulations back at Chicago Control warning of a Deviation. When history wobbled on the edge of chaos, anything was possible.
Shivering, he consulted his Timepiece. The techs at Control had disguised it to look like a Celtic cross suspended on a rope about his neck. He brushed one of the damned braids that dangled from his head out of his face. Maybe his next assignment would be in a time that had less gnarly haircuts.
The holographic display flared, tethered by a thread of light to the runic decorations on the pewter surface of the Timepiece. The readout jiggled like Jell-O in his trembling fingers, but was steady enough for him to follow its scan of the vicinity. A few hot spots, stoats and perhaps a fox, but no humans. Good enough.
With a stroke, the display changed to a map. The old Roman road was fifty yards on his right, and Gunnar's hut another couple hundred yards beyond. Another tap on the Timepiece, and the display vanished. He could find his way from here. After all, this wasn't his first visit to the village.
It would be good to see Gunnar again, even if he was kind of a tight ass. With a grim smile, he struck out for the road while mentally testing his lingual implant. Merde. Wrong language. He narrowed his eyes and concentrated. Something twinged deep inside his brain, and his implant sent Anglisc and the Dansk Tunga tumbling back. Stront. That was better. He straightened his broad-brimmed merchant's hat and pushed through the undergrowth.
After a few minutes, he stumbled into a rutted trail that rambled through the woods. His foot sank in manure-soaked mud. He inhaled a lungfull of the putrid stench, and a sneer curled his upper lip. By God's nails, I'll not complain about Chicago streets again. He shook the muck from his boot and trudged onward.
Soon the forest gave way to fields of barley and oats. The scents of cherry and hazel hit him as he approached the village. A brisk wind prickled his cheeks, and a wispy fog snaked between the square, thatch-roofed huts of the peasants. An infant squalled, reminding Haakon that real people lived here, innocent people. People about to be swept up in the march of history. Unless, of course, a Deviation struck first, which would be even worse.
His steps accelerated. The sooner he made contact with Gunnar, the sooner he could start his mission.
He headed to the chandler's cottage and hesitated at the entrance, his hand poised to knock. He heaved a deep breath and rapped against the door while calling out in Anglisc, "Praise the Lord and good King Harold, Chandler. Pray open the door."
The soft baritone that answered managed to make the guttural tones of Anglisc sing. "Who's that, disturbin' the peace of this hour?"
Despite himself, a smile bent Haakon's mouth at the sound of that voice. He licked his lips and growled, "Goodman Gunnar Oldham, 'tis but a poor merchant who seeks shelter and the boon of your company."
The voice answered, "How is it ye know my name, merchant?" The portal flew open to reveal a burly man holding an axe in one fist and a candlestick in the other. At the sight of Haakon, his bearded face split into a toothy grin. "Haakon Sigurdson! You're no merchant, you cur." He cast a wary glance at the woods, where dawn was turning the night sky to day. "Come in, come in. It's wisest we not be out." He leaned his axe against the door and ushered Haakon inside.
Haakon stomped into the cramped cottage. A fire flickered from a hearth in the middle of the single room, sending a thread of smoke wavering upward to escape through a vent in the thatched roof. Candles guttered here and there on tables and on the planked floor, fouling the air with the stench of burning animal fat.
Gunnar slammed the door closed, spun him around, and grasped him in a bear hug. "I have missed you, handsome man." He planted a lingering kiss on Haakon's lips.
Haakon relaxed in the other's arms for a moment before he stiffened. "I've missed you, too. We should be careful, though. If the Priest saw us, we'd be fodder for a burning."
Gunnar pulled back and traced a grimy finger across Haakon's cheek. "I know. It's just that it's been what? Six months since last we spoke?"
Haakon stroked the back of Gunnar's hand. "I've been on another assignment, in Kadesh in 1258 BCE. It's been over two years in personal time for me."
Gunnar quirked an eyebrow. "Kadesh? You mean the battle?"
"No, this was the negotiations for the peace treaty between Ramses and the Hittites. First treaty ever in history. A gang from the twenty-sixth century infiltrated the Pharaoh's entourage and tried to sabotage the talks."
Gunnar shuddered. "Sounds nasty. Glad it was your assignment and not mine."
Haakon shrugged. "It's my job. I'd rather deal with gangsters than religious fanatics."
Gunnar's gaze flickered for the barest instant as he broke their embrace. "You've got that right. Anyway, it was a good thing Control had the likes of you to send there. Me, I'd rather just preserve a true record of what happens in history." He stepped to a table in the corner where he uncorked a flagon and poured a dark brew into two bowls. He cocked an appraising eye at his guest. "What brings you back to this time, my friend? Not another possible Deviation, I hope. I haven't seen any evidence of renegade time travelers."
Haakon stripped off his cloak and sat, legs criss-crossed, before the fire. "I'm here to check a feedback resonance the techs back in Chicago picked up." Best not say too much. Not yet, anyway. "Probably just the bean counters at Control being overly cautious." He took a swallow of ale from the bowl Gunnar gave him and shuddered. "Gah, that'll rot your innards."
Gunnar grinned and puttered about the room, throwing a log on the fire and lighting more candles. "I've seen no sign of a glitch." He squatted next to Haakon and poked at the fire, which crackled and sent sparks cascading up to the vent. "Tostig's henchmen have been about for the last few weeks, but there's no sign of his Viking masters yet." His face brightened. "Brother Ralf is here. Perhaps he has news from Jorvik."
Haakon's spirits rose. "Ralf has a good eye, for a local. He's saved my butt on more than one occasion. How's the scoundrel doing?"
"He seems well. I caught sight of him in the market yesterday with the local priest and some wench."
Haakon frowned. "He's not here on a mission for us, is he?" Surely the Abbot wouldn't send Ralf to certain death at the hands of the Vikings.
Gunnar shook his head. "I don't think so. I mean, the Abbot would have let me know somehow. Ralf didn't even stop to see me. Like I said, I just happened to spot him in the market yesterday."
"With the priest and a wench, you say?"
"Yes. I've seen the woman before. She works in the parsonage as a scullery maid." He rolled his eyes. "If you ask me, our priest isn't as celibate as the canons require. There's a child living in the parsonage with them."
"I doubt the Bishop cares what happens in this backwater." Memory flared to life. "Of course. Ralf told me of mother and child. They settled here with the help of the church. With Tostig back and nosing around, Ralf's probably come to check on them." Haakon stroked his nose. "I need to speak with him and find out what news he has."
Gunnar frowned. "Strange he never mentioned a daughter to me. Are you sure? To my certain knowledge, his lusts are for men and not women."
To his certain knowledge. The words echoed in Haakon's head, reminding him of the ephemeral nature of all Timekeeper relationships. He firmed his mouth and held his gaze steady on Gunnar. "She's not Ralf's child. I imagined she was old King Edward's. Ralf was one of his trusted henchmen before his passing." This was making sense. "The child would be about six or seven by now." He ran a finger on the rim of his bowl and avoided Gunnar's gaze. "Charlotte, that's her name. Maybe he's here to give them a warning."
Gunnar frowned. "You think Ralf's here because the Vikings are coming?" He paled and leaned forward. "You do, don't you? And you think that the Abbott's warned him. That's a violation!"
Haakon shrugged. "There's misery enough in this world. Whether one child lives or dies won't change the course of history. There's good reason to show mercy for those like Ralf that help us."
"But you said the techs found a feedback resonance in the fabric of time. This could be what's causing it. You've got to stop Ralf."
The fanatical certainty in Gunnar's voice gave Haakon pause. On the other hand, he could be right. Probably not, given the nature of what the simulations showed, but he could be. He shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. I'm here to investigate, not to sentence locals to needless deaths. More likely it's nothing at all."
Shouts echoed in the distance, and Haakon tensed.
Gunnar jumped to his feet and strode to the door of his hut. He threw it open, and the calls grew louder. The acrid scent of smoke invaded the interior. Shouts turned to screams. Hooves thudded now, too, and the cry of battle stallions broke the stillness of the morning.
Gunnar's face turned pale, and he fingered the Celtic cross hanging about his neck, a match to Haakon's. "It's started. This is a week earlier than it's supposed to happen. It's a Deviation for sure. We need to get out of here and report in."
Haakon snatched up the axe Gunnar had left by the door and followed him outside the hut. A heavy fog now shrouded the village, hiding the marauders, but the sounds of battle surged around them.
Smoke mixed with the fetid fog to char his nostrils. Pigs and goats squalled from their pens, and men and women screamed. A mounted warrior carrying a flaming torch coalesced out of the fog. He paused to light the thatched roof of Gunnar's hut and then vanished into the mist.
Gunnar tugged at Haakon's arm. "It's standing orders anytime there's a Deviation. We've got to get back to Chicago Control. They've got to know about this."
Haakon shrugged him off. "You go. I need to find Ralf. Where's the parsonage?"
Gunnar gave him a wild-eyed stare. "Next to the church, of course. But you have to come with me. It's standing orders, I tell you. The Vikings will take care of Ralf." He grabbed Haakon's wrist and jerked.
"Follow your damned orders if you must. I'm not going to abandon our friend." Haakon pulled loose from Gunnar's grip. "We've got time machines, remember? There's no rush as long as we get back."
Gunnar scowled and pulled out his Timepiece. His fingers shook as he stroked the surface and it came to life in a flare of light. "I'm going back to Chicago Control. If you stay, I'll report you."
Another mounted warrior erupted from the fog, the black on white raven's banner of Hardrada's Viking thanes fluttering from his lance. Flames from the thatched roof gleamed off the man's polished battle helmet. His spurred heels dug into his horse's flanks and the animal turned to charge Haakon and Gunnar. Foam covered its lips, and blood dripped from the warrior's longsword. The warrior pointed his weapon at Gunnar's throat.
Gunnar stroked his Timepiece. The warrior's blade slashed his torso and blood spouted in a crimson spiral. But then the temporal field appeared, freezing Gunnar and the spurting blood in a stolen moment in time. The field glimmered, and Gunnar disappeared to the future.
The warrior whirled and charged again. This time his blade aimed at Haakon.
Haakon ducked and parried as best he could with Gunnar's axe. The warrior's longsword wavered, but struck his chest in a glancing blow and a cascade of sparks. Haakon collapsed to the dirt, gasping for breath.
The Viking thundered off into the fog.
Haakon touched himself, half expecting to find a bloody hole in his body, but the point hadn't penetrated his flesh. A dent marred the surface of his Timepiece, which apparently had taken the brunt of the blow. That must have been the source of the sparks.
He forced himself to his hands and knees and then staggered to his feet. The sack of Scarborough still raged, but judging from the sounds, the Viking warriors had reached the headland where the church stood. Where Ralf was likely to be.
He glanced at the pool of blood where he'd last seen Gunnar. The medics at Chicago Control would either save him or not. There was nothing Haakon could do about that. What mattered now was Ralf. And his mission.
Screams drew his attention back to the battle. He stood, slipped on Gunnar's blood, and steadied himself with the axe. He needed to get to Ralf. He might know something, but more importantly Haakon owed him.
And Gunnar had been right after all. It was urgent that he report what he'd just seen. It wasn't just that the sack was a week early. The mounted Viking's helmet had gleamed impossibly black and shiny in the flames. Haakon recognized the words and sigil emblazoned in gold above the man's face. How could he not? It had read Harley Davidson Motorcycles.
The bean counters at Control knew what they were doing. Someone was mucking with time.